Pakistan and Afghanistan on Wednesday agreed on de-escalation of tensions at Torkham after cross-border skirmishes over the past three days left nearly half a dozen troops dead on both sides and dozens others wounded.
A relative calm was witnessed on the border as guns on both sides fell silent early Wednesday morning despite the overnight arrival of reinforcements, while the border-crossing point remained closed with army and Frontier Corps personnel taking complete control of Torkham and its surrounding areas.
The roadmap for lowering tensions was agreed at a meeting of Afghan Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal with Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Zubair Mehmood Hayat.
Under the agreement, Afghan forces would stop firing at the Pakistani border post and the construction of a gate would resume following which Pakistan would allow the resumption of cross-border traffic, a source disclosed.
Clashes started on Sunday when the Afghan border forces fired at the under-construction border gate at Torkham to stop the building activity on the Pakistani side some 37 metres inside the border. A Pakistan Army Major, Jawad Ali Changezi, was killed in the firing, whereas Afghan security forces lost four men. Security forces, meanwhile, closed down roads leading to Torkham at Enzari Pass, Kabalo Maina, Zaman Sapari and Michni checkpoint near Landi Kotal bazaar.
Amb Zakhilwal said his meetings with Pakistani leaders resulted in an agreement “on ceasefire, de-escalation of tension, drawdown on military buildup and steps forward for an amicable solution”.
Earlier, military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa at a media briefing at ISPR said: “We are trying to defuse the situation. Engagement is taking place at the military and diplomatic levels. No one wants to prolong it.”
Gen Bajwa, however, did not give any timeline about the expected reopening of the Torkham crossing, which is the most frequented crossing point on the 2,600km-long porous border between the two countries with about 25,000 travellers using it every day in addition to dozens of cargo vehicles.
Amb Zakhilwal had also been summoned by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry to protest the death of an army officer in firing by Afghan forces. Mr Chaudhry reminded the Afghan diplomat that the construction began only after both sides had agreed to it during their meetings held last month. The foreign secretary was responding to the Afghan claim that new construction could not be started without mutual consent.
Amb Zakhilwal had conveyed his government’s no-objection to the construction of the gate and fencing during a meeting with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif at GHQ on May 13, where he had gone to get the crossing reopened after Pakistani authorities closed it over Afghan objections to controlling the entry point.
Pakistan claims that the fencing of the area and erection of gate was meant to regulate the cross-border movement for preventing terrorists from entering its territory.
Gen Bajwa stressed that border management was crucial for Pakistan to sustain the gains made during Operation Zarb-i-Azb, whose second anniversary was observed on Wednesday.
He said all the eight established border crossings with Afghanistan would have similar border control measures, whereas movement at other places along the porous border via unfrequented routes would be blocked through deployment of paramilitary troops. In this connection, he said, new wings of Frontier Corps were being raised.
“A major thrust would now be on border management,” he added.
The military spokesman recalled that Charsadda University and PAF Camp Badaber attackers had come from Afghanistan through the unregulated Torkham crossing and Afghan intelligence Agency, NDS, was using the route to push in terrorists. Earlier, Army Public School attackers had also used the same crossing to enter Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Army Engineering Corps continued the construction of the newly designed gate at Torkham till midday on Wednesday.
Afghan border guards returned to Torkham holding white flags after pulling back from the border post on Sunday evening. “They are requesting for a halt in the construction work,” an official said.
Authorities said that work was suspended at midday to give a break to the builders owing to hot weather and fasting.
Khyber Agency political agent Khalid Mehmud told Dawn that Afghan forces had not fired at them since Sehar while they resumed construction of the gate early Wednesday morning. He said they had suspended the work to provide a much-needed break to the construction workers.
“We will resume the work late in the evening and will see how the Afghan forces respond,” he said, adding that he had credible information about Afghan forces vacating their positions near the zero point of the border crossing.
The Khyber Agency top administrator, who is stationed in Landi Kotal to closely monitor the unfolding development, said that they had not received any formal request from the Afghan authorities so far for a meeting on the prevailing situation.
The political administration closed down its offices inside the army camp on Wednesday for general public due to security reasons with directive to its staff to vacate offices and local elders to stay away till further orders.
The Levies force and khasadar had on Tuesday evening cautioned local residents from keeping their lights on during night time to avoid being hit by mortars fired by Afghan forces.
Residents of Bacha Maina, in the meantime, requested the local administration to provide security to their houses they had abandoned on Sunday night after Afghan forces resorted to indiscriminate firing when Pakistani authorities started construction of the gate.